Rangoon Bistro is not a kooky restaurant iterating on crab puffs; in fact, it doesn’t serve the eponymous fried wontons. Instead, the place takes its name from Myanmar’s capital city from 1948 until 2006, the birthplace of two-thirds of the staff.
After half a decade hawking tea leaf salads and chickpea tofu to farmers marketgoers on weekends—while holding down day jobs—the trio behind Rangoon Bistro now have a restaurant. The space, on a stretch of Southeast 50th Avenue just off Division Street, feels as warmhearted as the richly spiced noodles served within. Windows line the small room; modest but comfortable dark-wood tables and blue-cushioned chairs make for 30 or so seats. And while this may be a counter-service restaurant, don’t for a second take that as a cue that you’ll be anything less than genuinely cared for.
Nick Sherbo, Alex Saw or David Sai will greet you personally—the three co-owners are the restaurant’s only full-time staff and are in no rush to change that: “None of us are interested in, like, ‘OK, how soon can we not be the people mopping the floor,’” Sherbo says.
Though born in Myanmar, both Saw and Sai fled the country by age 15 and spent their formative years cooking in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Ironically, cooking everywhere but Myanmar has left them well equipped to cook Burmese food, as the cuisine is largely a mix of dishes adopted from its bordering countries.
“Every day,” Sai says, “we make it a little better.”
The dishes reflect this pursuit to perfect childhood memories of their native foods.
Take, for instance, the cucumber thoke ($10)—a Burmese salad. Piles of shredded vegetables sit in blue-rimmed enamel dishes, not the least bit fussy but full of intention. What you might call cucumber noodles are dressed liberally in a bright yellow turmeric oil, slices of Thai chile lend a pleasant warmth, and a fistful of lemon basil brings an aromatic punch—poached shrimp ($4) are a not-so-optional add-on. It’s a salad that provokes both a gasp and a smile.
Noodles (that aren’t cut from cucumbers) are obligatory at any Rangoon Bistro meal. The menu describes khao pyan sane ($9) as “one very large dumpling,” and it more than delivers on that promise. The gloriously “very large” rice noodle dumpling is stuffed with either ground pork or seasonal vegetables and slicked in sweet-tangy chili sauce. It’s the size of a baked potato and comes wrapped in banana leaves and, once sliced, becomes a lush bowl.
The Burmese classic si chet khao swe ($16)—wheat noodles with pork shoulder and jowl—combine Saw’s culinary roots with his years of cooking carbonara at Il Lido, a famed Kuala Lumpur restaurant helmed by Michelin-starred Italian chef Andrea Zanella. The dish has all the textural markers of a pasta that means business, with full-flavored notes of fish sauce, black pepper-flecked, garlicky pork, and a bright flourish of mustard greens.
Pork, you may gather, is king at Rangoon Bistro. Giant cubes of pork belly ($17) quiver as they hit the table, braised with mango until tender. A fenugreek- and nigella-spiked Punjabi-style mango relish falls over top—its sweetness balanced by the pleasantly bitter, still-intact mango skins and a Burmese chile-garlic crisp called balachaung.
Chana dal, skinned and split chickpeas (resembling yellow lentils), are fried and served atop salads; powdered, toasted and dusted over chilled noodles (khao swe thoke, $12); and slow-simmered into a creamy sauce for rice noodles (tofu nway; $14, $16). When stewed and set, chana dal becomes Burmese or chickpea tofu. The tofu is served both as a salad—chilled and thinly sliced (tohu thoke, $12) and crisp-fried as dimpled flat fritters ($11) half the size of a playing card to dip in a vegan ranch.
This dance all happens without hierarchy. Nobody is chef or front-of-house manager of Rangoon Bistro. All three co-owners welcome customers, cook during service, develop recipes for the menu, wash dishes and mop the floor—the energy that they are a capital-T team is palpable.
“We’re not ‘cheffy’ at all,” says Sherbo, the crew’s lone American—a dutiful student of Burmese cuisine. “So our bread and butter is in doing all the little things right.”
And that spirit drives the place. The atmosphere is easy and unpretentious, extremely casual and extremely hospitable. The music is loud, the smiles are big, and above all, the food is delicious.
EAT: Rangoon Bistro, 2311 SE 50th Ave., 503-953-5385, rangoonbistropdx.com. 5-9 pm Wednesday-Friday, noon-9 pm Saturday-Sunday.